Obama pressure Israel? Bad idea

It is suggested that the President-elect should tell Israelis he can work only with Livni. I trust he will ignore this

By Geoffrey Alderman, November 13, 2008

The election of a new American president is always an anxious time for the state of Israel. More than a third of the world's Jews live in the USA and, although these Jews account for a mere two per cent of the USA's total population, they tend to punch very much above their weight, being prominent in business, commerce and the professions. Last week, around three-quarters of them appear to have voted for the Democrat ticket of Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

On the face of it, the security and well-being of the state of Israel seem to be in safe hands as the troubled Bush presidency draws to a close. I write in these terms because, although Israel is of course a sovereign state, America is its guardian and protector. This is a geopolitical fact of life. Many are the malodorous draft resolutions tabled at the United Nations that might have passed by acclamation had not the USA used its veto.

Numerous are the battles that the IDF might not have won - and might even have lost - had it not been for American assistance and support, often covert. The Islamist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon seven years ago were motivated by animosities that transcended the de facto alliance between Israel and the USA. But it would be dishonest not to include this alliance within the catalogue of grievances that the Islamic world lays at America's door.

Ordinarily I would not be too concerned about a change of government in the USA. At bottom, America supports Israel because it is in its own interests to do so, and because Israel, alone of the states of the Middle East, shares the American belief in the virtues of democracy. In any case, as the JC's editorial pointed out last week, the Middle East is unlikely to be viewed as a priority when Senator Obama succeeds to the American Presidency. His first, overriding, priority will be the global financial crisis, and the economic recession which will begin to bite very deep in 2009. As commander-in-chief, he will need to reassess American military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. Peacemaking between Israel and its Arab neighbours (which many interpret merely as putting pressure on Israel to make seismic concessions to its enemies) will not be at the top of his in-tray.

Not, that is, unless outside interests force it to the top. What sort of interests might these be? The obvious suspects are groups such as Hizbollah and Hamas, perhaps working through their patron-states, Syria and Iran.

Hizbollah might stage an incident on the Israel-Lebanon border. Hamas might significantly increase the frequency and severity of its rocket attacks on centres of Jewish civilian population in Israel. Alternatively, Hamas might engineer (literally) another energy "crisis" in Gaza, and broadcast worldwide harrowing scenes of apparent human suffering.

Any of these scenarios is possible, and I would not be at all surprised if one or more of them came to pass within weeks of President Obama's inauguration (if not before).

But I am actually much more concerned at the possibility of home-grown meddling, in the form of those Israelis and their foreign friends who espouse a policy of appeasement towards the enemies of the Jewish state ("give Hitler the Sudetenland and he won't want to grab Poland as well") using the Obama victory to push an agenda that will, at most, deliver a short-term peace but only as a prelude to a catastrophe that I would rather not think about.

Israel has never interfered in the internal affairs of the USA. If American Jews have raised Israel's well-being as an issue at American elections, they have done so quite legitimately, as American citizens. But I am now hearing it suggested that America should interfere, deliberately, in the internal affairs of Israel, specifically by making it clear that, when Israel goes to the polls on February 10, Barack Obama (who will by then have been sworn in as the 44th president of the USA) should send Israeli voters the message that he can work only with Kadima's Tzipi Livni, and not with Likud's Bibi Netanyahu.

This suggestion (put forward by my colleague Jonathan Freedland last week but also advocated by others) is fraught with danger. I trust that President Obama will have the good sense to dismiss it from his mind.

Last updated: 11:17am, November 13 2008